Few and Hard

How do you want the years of your life to be viewed? Someone wise told me that each and every day we write part of our eulogy. What part are you working on today?

At the end of his life, Jacob met with Pharaoh in Egypt. Pharaoh asked him “How many are the days of the years of your life?” Jacob’s reply might take us aback at first. He stated, “The days of the years of my sojourn on earth have been 130. Few and hard have been the days of the years of my life, and the do not reach the life spans of my fathers during their sojourns.”

Is this Jacob being Hutzpahdik again? I’m sure many of us would love to live 130 years-or have our loved ones have lived 130 years. Why is Jacob comparing his own life to that of his father’s and grandfather’s? Why isn’t he looking back on his life and saying “I have had a life well-lived?”

Rashi, an 11th century French commentator, wondered about why Jacob brought his forefathers into his reply to Pharaoh. He asserted that Jacob did not mean that his life did not attain Isaac’s and Abraham’s in terms of goodness. After all, Jacob lived most of his adult life thinking his youngest, beloved son, Joseph, was dead. He also lived through years of famine, as a refugee fleeing his brother Esau, and of being deceived by family members. At this stage, Jacob recognizes that he had a much harder life than those before him. We know that stress can age people (just look at how President Obama looks now compared to seven years ago), and through his trials and tribulations Jacob has greatly aged.

Nachmanides (Ramban), from 13th century Spain and Israel, was interested in why Pharaoh asked Jacob the question about his age in the first place. He comments that Pharaoh had seen very few people who had reached Jacob’s age and wanted to know what his secret was. Perhaps Jacob had an elixir or a “fountain of youth,” just like some are now looking the reason why people in Okinawa, Japan tend to live such long lives. Jacob threw a difficult answer back at Pharaoh, retorting that not only is there no secret but he actually has lived a shorter amount of time than those who preceded him-that it is just from his hard life that he looks older than he is.

Ovadiah Seforno, a 16th century Italian commentator, went a step further in discussing Jacob’s hardships. He asserted that the years in which one goes through hardships are not considered “the years of one’s life.” Of course they are considered years in which Jacob has sojourned on earth, so they count towards his 130 years. However, for Seforno, living through toil and tribulation is not life in its fullest and richest sense, making Jacob’s years of calm and comfort “few and hard.” While Jacob was blessed to live many years, unfortunately he was not blessed with an easy life in which he could live to the fullest.

What lessons do we take from Jacob’s reply to Pharaoh? Perhaps it is that Jacob finally understands that life is about more than how many years one lives; it’s about what one does with the years that s/he is given. Jacob was privileged to live 17 years after his encounter with Pharaoh, to a ripe-old age of 147, yet I doubt many of us would have traded our lives for his and for what he went through. The birthright and the blessing he had achieved did not appear to be so valuable anymore after being manipulated by his children into thinking his son was dead and almost going through the same heartbreak when he entrusted Benjamin to the brothers’ care so that they would not starve during the famine. What we learn from Jacob is the well-known statement, “a person of wisdom makes every day count,” that while we may not have the blessing of living 147 years, we can enjoy and make the most out of each day of each month of each year that we do have. In so doing, while our days might not add up to those of our forefathers, instead of viewing them as “few and hard” we can see them as “full and wonderful.” We are fortunate to live in nice suburban homes with food and clothing so readily accessible to us at a time when we have economic opportunities greater than those of our ancestors. Let us do what we can to appreciate the blessings of our life each and every day to always view things with the best outlook. Shabbat Shalom.

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Over 200 Muslims Marching

Over 200 American Muslims marched on Saturday with signs saying “America Is Our Home” and “Islam strictly prohibits terrorism” and condemning terrorism is the name of religion, proclaiming “Islam means peace.” It was heartening to learn that Muslims condemned the actions of other Muslims, just as Jews do when one of our commits an atrocity. At the same time, I’m sure some will say “Where are the other hundreds of thousands of Muslims who live in New York?” I wish there were more Muslims who spoke out, but I do not believe that 200 is an insignificant number. We need to reach out to our local organizations, like the Islamic Center of Long Island, an applaud them when they speak out against terrorists. We also need to partner with them on initiatives rather than shying away from them. If the moderate Muslims voices condemning terrorism are few or just not getting the attention of the media, we are still obligated to start with those that we know about, standing in solidarity with them. It’s not easy to speak out against co-coreligionists, and when one rightly does so (after the San Bernardino massacre), they need to be shown appreciation rather than skepticism or indifference.

Stuck on the Train

Last night Karina, her uncle Mike and I were heading back on the Long Island Rail Road after a fun night in the city of dinner and comedy. As we exited the subway at Penn Station and saw the train right across the platform, I had an inkling that something was not right. We got on the train and proceeded past Jamaica towards Merillon Avenue when all of a sudden we heard a thump. The train stopped, and we all waited, not knowing what happened. The conductor came on and said we struck someone on the tracks and that we would need to wait for a police investigation before exiting the train.

Many of the passengers’ first reactions was to be upset about being inconvenienced. However, at the same time I thought about this individual who for whatever reason got on the tracks and had his/her life ended instantly by the train. I realized the fleeting nature of our lives and of our own mortality. Someone who probably had a full future ahead of him/her gone in one second.

The train powered down, including the A/C, and it was boiling the entire half hour we were stuck on the train. I was worried about my wife’s boiling because of her pregnancy. We were told that the last two cars had platformed at the New Hyde Park station, and that we should exit the train. There would be buses picking us up and taking us to the Hicksville Station, but who know how long the buses would take. We got up to exit but stood for at least 10 minutes before anyone was let off. Finally we exited on the south side of the train station, on which there were no cabs. We called an Uber but noticed the premium on the wait time and cost. I knew Mark Wilkow, our former congregational President and good friend, would be up and he generously offered to get us from the New Hyde Park Station.

This experience made me realize that a relatively brief inconvenience (an hour and a half delay in getting home, being stuck in a warm train car) pales in importance to the individual who was struck by the train. Ultimately I made it home and though tired, I can continue life’s adventures today. That is not true for the other. I hope that next time we are stuck in a situation beyond our control we will take a moment to appreciate what we do have and recognize that inconveniences can be overcome.

What’s In a Name

It is very fitting that this Shabbat Daphne is being given her Hebrew name Aviva for two reasons. First, there are two babies who are named in this week’s Torah portion: Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Manasseh. Both names have to do with Joseph’s state of life. Manasseh means to forget, and is so named כי נשני אלקים את כל עמלי ואת כל-בית אבי, for God has made me forget my hardship and my father’s home. At first glance it seems like a horrible name to give a child-we name our children after people we want to remember, not events that we want to forget. However, Joseph is pointing out how much his life has changed and that he is grateful for those changes. He is no longer the boy hated by his brothers, who was thrown into a pit and later into jail, but rather he is second-in-command in all of Egypt! Joseph recognizes the goodness of his life now, and he demonstrates his appreciation through Manasseh’s name.

Joseph next names his son Ephraim כי הפרני אלקים בארץ עניי, for God has made me fertile in the land of my affliction. This is an even more bizarre etymology for a name. Joseph has it better than anyone else except Pharaoh, so why would he refer to Egypt as “the land of his affliction?” Is he referring to the fact that he was imprisoned for 13 years in Egypt, is he foreshadowing his people’s captivity in Egypt, or is something else going on?

I would argue that while Joseph has an exalted position and a great standard of living, especially considering the famine all around him, he recognizes that “there is no place like home.” He asks for his brother Benjamin, who he has not met, to come down to Egypt. He misses his father Jacob, as evidenced by the fact that he says העוד אבי חי, “is my father still alive” when he reveals himself to his brothers. Joseph cannot escape his past-his upbringing with 12 brothers and a sister in Canaan. He received an Egyptian name צפנת פענח, Tzapnath Pa’aneach meaning “God speaks-he lives.” He also marries and Egyptian, Asenath the daughter of Potiphera, the priest of On. However, Joseph will always be bound to the Hebrew people, to his family and their way of life.

This message comes to light as we celebrate Daphne’s Hebrew name, Aviva, which means spring. As mentioned by her parents, Jennifer and Daniel, Aviva is named after a number of grandmothers and great-grandmothers named Anna and Amelia. Our tradition in Ashkenazi Judaism is to name a child after relatives who have passed on, so that their attributes, their traditions and the values that they taught us continue on directly into the newborn. It also means that each child has a responsibility and the opportunity to live in accordance with to the example of those who came before.

While we generally no longer name people after events that occur in our lives, the example of Ephraim and Manasseh shed light on the name we gave Daphne today. The name Aviva binds Daphne to those who came before her, linking her to her heritage and to those who worked hard to enable her to be before us this very day. We recognize that though Daphne will grow up to be her own, independent person, she will forever be linked to the chain of tradition comprised by her parents, Jen and Daniel and her grandparents, Dave, Christine, Caren and Kenneth. In naming Daphne today, we know that she will continue to be raised with love, tenderness and caring and that she will live in accordance with the values that her family bestows upon her today. Mazal Tov to the entire family on reaching this joyous occasion!

Shameful Trumpist Xenophobia

I heard Donald Trump’s comments about banning Muslims from entering the United States “until our representatives can figure out what is going on” as a shameful overreaction, collectively punishing the many for the sins of the few. Trump should know that we’re aware of what is going on. There are terrorist attacks from people with a radically different worldview than we have, a desire to create a new Islamic Caliphate. Unfortunately, knowing that there are radical Muslims who seek to harm non-Muslims and those with western values will not make us able to stop each and every attack. We can work on doing a better job of monitoring those with suspicious loyalties but this is different than barring an entire religion from entering a country.

What disturbs me is how many people I have encountered who share Trump’s sentiments, believing that all Muslims are radical and that American Muslims in an ideal world would overthrow our western democracy and institute a country governed by Sharia law. The belief that all Muslims desire the creation of an Islamic Caliphate is simply not true. I have met so many moderate Muslims while working at the Inner City Muslim Action Network in Chicago, at the 92nd Street Mosque in Manhattan and through being in dialogue with the Islamic Center of Long Island in Westbury. These organizations have issued statements decrying Muslim terrorist attacks, stating that radical Muslims are “friends of Satan,” that they radically take Jihad, a struggle against oneself, out of context as a holy war. They have marched against ISIS, condemned 9/11 and the Paris massacres. The reply I get is “there are not enough of them speaking out, which means they sympathize with the radicals.” We have a mosque in our backyard which has spoken out repeatedly against terrorism and yet we choose to ignore it. It is far too easy to play into Trump’s hand, seeing all Muslims as terrorists.

I wrote in a previous post that I believe we are at war with radical Islam, and I continue to believe that. However, to say that all of Islam is radical, that every Muslim believes we should “kill the infidel,” that a fundamental tenet of Islam is to be anti-Israel or that “the only good Arab is a dead one” is so vehemently wrong and deeply troubling. In seeing the world in such a black-and-white frame we let fear drive our every move, and we generalize an entire people over the deeds of a minority of the population.

Last night we had a debate on the Syrian Refugee situation, and the most popular opinion (or at least the one which got the most applause) was not to let in any refugees, not even a 5 year old orphan. “Let them move to Saudi Arabia” was what was suggested; “They’ll take over our country and we’ll become just like France.” Where is our responsibility in making a difference, in “being the change we want to see in the world”? Do we want to live in fear over the “what ifs,” locked away in our suburban palaces, or do we actually want to do something small albeit significant to support those in need? If we do the former, then the Trumpist attitude will prevail, and we will be back in the isolationist, “me first” attitude that our relatives found themselves in in 1930s America. Let’s not let our degree of comfort blind us from what it took to get there in the first place. For Trump first we’ll start with the Muslims, but the Jews are not far behind.